Halfway through Sunday’s Mexican Grand Prix, I was already starting to think about possible headlines and an introduction for my race report.
Pre-writing may be risky (just ask my colleague, Tony DiZinno, who covered Le Mans earlier this year), but the race looked run. Lewis Hamilton was streets ahead up front, while Formula 1 championship rival and Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg had been off the pace all weekend long. Second appeared to be comfortable for him.
And then, in the closing stages, just as the finishes touches were being put to my report, the race burst into life. It had been a slow burner up to that point, but when Sebastian Vettel began to close up on Max Verstappen in third place, all of a sudden, the race got interesting once again.
The battle that ensued and the words that were said have been well documented in the past 24 hours. The ‘too long, didn’t read’ version: Verstappen runs off at Turn 1 when trying to stay ahead of Vettel; Vettel gets told Verstappen would give the place up; Verstappen doesn’t give the place up, instead backing Vettel into Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo; Ricciardo and Vettel make contact, both continue; Verstappen crosses the line third ahead of Vettel and Ricciardo; Verstappen gets a post-race penalty for gaining an advantage by going off-track, drops to fifth, Vettel moves up to third; Vettel then gets a penalty for moving under braking, promoting Ricciardo to third.
So, simple, as is often the case with F1…
The stewarding in Mexico did come under some scrutiny, particularly given the fact Hamilton got away with a seemingly similar move to Verstappen on the first lap of the race. However, what really caught the attention of those watching was Vettel’s quite remarkable tirade over the radio in the closing laps as he vented his frustration about Verstappen.
It was a rant that went too far. Sure, he was frustrated; sure, adrenalin was pumping – but Vettel overstepped the mark.
Here is the radio transcript between Vettel, engineer Riccardo Adami and team principal Maurizio Arrivabene in the closing laps of the race. The expletives are, naturally, asterisked where appropriate.
Vettel: He has to let me go, he has to let me go.
Adami: OK copy, stay calm.
Vettel: No it’s not right. I don’t stay calm. He’s just blocking me into Ricciardo.
Adami: Verstappen has to give you the position. Watch for Ricciardo behind.
Vettel: MOVE! Move for f**k’s sake! He’s a ****, that’s what he is!
Adami: He has been informed, he has to move
Vettel: I mean am I the only one or are you not seeing what I’m seeing? He’s just backing me off into Ricciardo! Seriously!
Adami: You have to fight with him. Charlie said that-
Vettel: What the hell are you talking about? He cut the chicane! And now he’s brake-testing me. I mean honestly, I think I’m going to hit someone. I think I have a puncture, rear-left.
Adami: Tires are fine.
Vettel: He has to give me the position. End of story.
Adami: Charlie said that… Charlie said-
Vettel: Yeah? Here’s a message to Charlie: f**k off! Honestly, f**k off!
Arrivabene: Sebastian, calm down. Calm down. They are under investigation. I know that it is not fair. But calm down. Put your head down and then we talk afterwards.
Vettel: OK, copy Maurizio.
The key point in that radio transcript is not actually Vettel’s angry comments, but instead the misunderstanding for Ferrari. Adami told Vettel that Verstappen had been told he had to give the place up, which was incorrect. Red Bull had told Verstappen via team radio that he might have to give the place up – but instructed him to stay ahead until the FIA made a decision on it. Instead of making a snap call, the stewards elected to investigate the issue, making a post-race call inevitable. This mix-up only stoked Vettel’s ire, making him think that Verstappen was ignoring the FIA; he wasn’t.
In fact, Verstappen did not actually do anything wrong. His move across the grass was cheeky, just as Lewis Hamilton’s was. But as a decision was not going to be made until after the race, he was under no obligation to give up the position. His defense was hard – as is often the case with the young Dutchman – but fair.
Vettel’s move on Ricciardo, however, was too much. There is a good helping of irony here, for it was Vettel who pressed on the FIA to clarify the rules regarding moving under braking, as done so over the United States Grand Prix weekend. He has now become the first driver to fall foul of the ruling.
But Vettel’s on-track misdemeanour was dealt with. The 10-second time penalty dished out by the stewards set a good precedent for future incidents, with the demotion to fifth a just sanction. Perhaps the biggest injustice is that Ricciardo did not actually get to stand on the podium and maybe offer us another shoey that would surely have sent the Mexican fans in the stadium even wilder.
In all of this, it must be noted that the decision to broadcast the expletive radio messages lay with the TV race director at Formula One Management, who runs the world feed that is passed on to all broadcasters. All radio messages are available for broadcast, and often are with a short delay. It is at the director’s discretion what is and is not put out for fans to hear. While it may not have been pretty, particularly for younger fans, the messages were a key microcosm within the race. Without them being broadcast, it looks like an on-track scrap and nothing more. The role of the TV director is to tell the story of the race; that’s precisely what they did by keeping these messages in.
Vettel knew straight after the race that his comments had been a big talking point, joking with Juan Pablo Montoya on the podium that it was the kind of thing the Colombian would have done in his time. Montoya certainly wore his heart on his sleeve, but telling the race director to “f**k off” is something totally different.
“Obviously I was very emotional so in fact I’ve already asked to go and see him so I think,” Vettel said in the post-race press conference. He would later visit Whiting and apologise for his comment.
“When you’re in the car, emotions are… I was full of adrenalin, you can imagine because I don’t think it was right what Max did. I was told that they were looking into it for three laps and I was sort of getting upset as you can imagine. “
What Vettel did was akin to insulting the referee of a football or soccer game. In F1, there is no set ‘referee’, but as race director, Whiting holds the most senior position when ruling over a race. He is helped by the team of stewards; they are his linesmen, albeit with more power in making decisions on penalties and the like.
So it beggars the question as to what would happen if a player in the NFL or Premier League soccer did something like that?
The NFL cracked down on unsportsmanlike conduct last year following a scrap between Odell Beckham Jr. and Josh Norman, where they racked up a litany of penalties. The threat of ejection was imposed for players that twice violated new rules in the same game, including “using abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures to opponents, teammates, officials, or representatives of the League”.
In the Premier League this year, new rules have been put in place to stop players crowding around or charging at referees in protest of decisions, with bookings being handed out to players breaching this. Sunderland manager David Moyes was handed a one-match ban only this week for swearing at a fourth official during an EFL Cup match-up against Southampton – the authority of the officials must be respected.
What makes Vettel’s offence all the more glaring is that it was so direct and could be heard by anybody. Swearing about a referee or competitor under your breath on the field of play is one thing. In F1, drivers often swear about their rivals on-track over team radio – Ricciardo did so to vent his frustration about Nico Rosberg in Austin the week before last – so it is not exactly new. What Vettel said was not the issue. It was who he said it about. It was the fact that he undermined the one person who should hold authority over the entire F1 field while they’re racing.
One of the best examples of referring done right comes in rugby. The man in the middle holds total authority over the players and takes a zero-tolerance approach to dissent. It is quite entertaining to see giants of players cowering in the face of a, by comparison, weedy ref, saying: “Yes Sir, sorry Sir!”
From my school rugby days, I remember the authority of the referee being entrenched in me from a young age. One time, after a blatant foul by the opposition, I called out in appeal: “Knock on, ref!” He blew the whistle. Then, instead of handing the ball to our team as I expected, he turned to me. “Yes, it was a knock on. But you are not the referee. I am. So I make the call.” The other team was given a penalty for my loud mouth, and my captain was far from amused…
The FIA’s handling of the issue with Vettel has been something of a compromise. Instead of taking a firm stand against Vettel and dishing out, harshest of all, a race ban, or, as may have been fairest, given him a fine and some penalty points on his FIA super license, it has given him a slap on the wrist; a “don’t do it again”. As gracious as Vettel may have been in writing letters to both Whiting and FIA president Jean Todt to apologize, he has not faced any real sanction for overstepping the mark and undermining the authority of the man in charge of the race. He’s got away with it.
One of the few positives that can come out of this episode is the show of emotion from Vettel in his messages. It is the kind of outburst we like to see from our sportsmen. It was a moment akin to John McEnroe’s “you cannot be serious!” at Wimbledon in 1981. It is acts like these that humanize otherwise super-human sportsmen – something that, sadly, appears to be fading away from F1 in a time of santized PR-friendly comments and actions.
So let’s not get mad at Sebastian Vettel for using naughty words. Let’s not hang him out to dry for protesting what he thought was an injustice. His biggest crime here was targeting Whiting in such a fashion. Let us just hope that the FIA’s failure to come down harder on the four-time world champion does not come back to bite in the future.
An effective move now for Whiting will be to fully explain and explore the issue with the drivers at the next drivers briefing in Brazil next Friday. There, he should make clear that he is the man in charge. As schoolmaster as it may seem, perhaps even getting Vettel to apologise in front of his peers may ram home the point: he is the man in charge.
Emotion is an excellent trait for our sportsmen to have. But so is respect. The latter is what was lost in Mexico.